Learning how to become a music producer can be a minefield at first. Beginners often wonder what gear they’ll need to get started with, how they should look, sound or get noticed in an industry that is furiously competitive.
That’s why we’ve spoken to a panel of five artists from different areas of the music industry and asked them to offer their tips for beginners on how to start producing music and climb the ladder to success. Here’s an introduction to our five chosen artists:
Krust: The pseudonym of Bristol-born Kirk Thompson, Krust (aka DJ Krust), is one of Jungle Music’s original pioneers. In 2009, he launched the creative minds consultancy Disruptive Patterns, spawning workshops and seminars specifically aimed at teaching students to learn to be a music producer.
Fred P: With over 100 credits to his growing discography, legendary New York producer and DJ Fred P is famed for his spiritual DJ sets and deeply explorative take on house and techno. He now releases music on his own Perpetual Sound label.
Malibu Babie: Hip-hop star in the making Malibu Babie has just become the first woman this century to debut at #1 on the Billboard Hot R&B/hip-hop chart and is one of the few female producers to debut at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, having co-produced the Nicki Minaj track “Super Freaky Girl.”
LVRA: Another newcomer making waves in the industry, 22-year-old Rachel Lu (aka LVRA) channelled her love of R&B and experimental electronics into her debut EP LVCID and won the Sound of Young Scotland Award at the Scottish Album of the Year ceremony in Edinburgh.
Scuba: Berlin-based electronic musician Paul Rose is better known as Scuba. One of dance music’s most inventive producers, he’s shaped the direction of the dubstep scene across five critically acclaimed albums. Rose is also the founder of Hotflush Recordings.
What tools would you recommend producers use to get started?
As an artist, producer and writer I seek out tools that allow me to be the most productive in the least amount of time and Native Instruments sound libraries and virtual instruments have scaled my output to a tremendous degree.
I love my hardware synths, but I’m rarely stationary so Native Instruments provides amazing tools that suit my sound signature and allow me to be even more creative and flexible. The MASCHINE Mikro MK3 allows me to track really quickly and flesh out ideas, while the different expansion packs save me time when searching for a particular sound, especially when I’m on the road.
Krust: You can try using DAWs like Ableton, Cubase or Bitwig, but also check out the Native Instruments collection. I would also try to get hold of a classic analogue keyboard like a Moog, Korg MS10 or Roland SH-101 to understand how sound and synthesis help you to start producing music. What you’ll learn from playing with a tangible instrument will be a great lesson.
How important is it to create a strong concept behind your sound and look?
LVRA: I’ve always seen music as a gateway to exploring larger ideas and concepts. My favourite artists are those who create whole worlds that are immersive and allow you to gain new perspectives. Having a vision is about understanding where your art fits (or doesn’t) into the web of existing ideas that are out there.
I find music is always more powerful when it goes beyond what is contained within the notes and lyrics.
Scuba: Your concept and vision don’t need to extend any further than having a hunger for knowledge and the ambition to expand your musical and technical horizons. You might come into the industry with clear influences and a strong idea of where you want to get to, but it’s crucial to be open-minded about where this process might take you.
In the short term, there’s no substitute for learning the basics and getting comfortable with the key techniques and principles of engineering a record. The more you learn about that, the more freedom you’ll ultimately have even if it might seem a bit suffocating at the time. Once you’re making music you’re happy with, conceptual ideas will naturally come into play.
What tips do you have for treating a room?
Krust: The first thing to do would be to use some room correction software to get a basic idea of what your space is doing. Figure out what your mixing position is and the spot where you’re hearing the best sound. Your corners can sometimes be a bass trap, so experiment with treatment in those areas and use reference tracks that you know work in a club, car or speaker system to allow you to find the frequencies that work within your space.
Malibu Babie: There are so many fantastic resources online that can walk you through the process. I made my sound panels using rockwool and wood from Home Depot and I remember how drastically my mixes improved when I first got the panels up.
I also like Sonarworks’ reference software—it measures the sound reflections in your room and adjusts what you hear from your speakers to help you achieve a flat sound.
How should you approach mixing and mastering?
LVRA: One thing I’ve learned over time was not feeling like I had to ‘do it all’ as if that somehow helps you learn how to become a better music producer. I usually export out a mix and pass it on to a mixing and mastering engineer who can make that extra 10% sound sweet.
If you’re just starting out, keep practicing and accept that your mixes will get better over time. A great thing to do is to listen to reference tracks to analyze the volume, position and clarity of the different parts of a song, then try to emulate that using some basic plugins and EQs.
Scuba: Production, mixing, and mastering have traditionally been done by three different people in three different studios. With electronic music, the first two have almost blended into one as the skill of sound design and, by extension, the mixdown is so intrinsic to the perception of the quality of a track.
Mastering on the other hand is a dark art, and you’d be well advised to seek help for this part of the process—a fresh pair of ears can provide an invaluable perspective. You’d also be well-advised to get up to speed with the basics of master bus compression, EQing, and limiting to get your tracks up to a level where you can play them out or give them to DJs before you start thinking about releasing them.
How do you reach out to people in a crowded industry?
Scuba: You just have to be tenacious, although there are a few rules of thumb to follow. Never send out more than two or three tracks at a time, be persistent but don’t be annoying and never take it personally if someone doesn’t get back to you.
If you can see that someone has listened to your track but hasn’t given any feedback, that probably means they didn’t like it—otherwise they’d certainly tell you. The best rule is never to send out music you’re not 100% sure about. If there’s any doubt in your mind, it’s probably not good enough.
Malibu Babie: When I started out I made a point to really put myself out there on social media and network by playing shows. Brand yourself and go for it, but be sure to be kind and professional in all your exchanges. I also advise coming to people with something exciting to share or approaching each relationship with a ‘what can I do for them’ attitude. You want people to feel like you’re giving them a beneficial exchange.
Should you search for a record deal or self-release?
Fred P: Always roll the dice on yourself. Learn how to to start producing music, be productive and invest in your project. I write while I’m travelling to gigs, mix in hotel rooms whenever I get the chance and 90% of the music I make gets released on my own label or other labels that I work with.
Krust: That depends on whether they can nurture, mentor and advise you. If a label can provide that, it’s a good fit, but self-releasing is a great route to take because it teaches you so much about the business that you might miss if you take the label route too early. The most important skill to cultivate is entrepreneurship. Learn how to self-manage so that when the time’s right for a deal you have some knowledge and don’t walk in blind and green.
What’s the one mistake you’ve made that others can learn from?
Malibu Babie: Beware of too many competing low frequencies in your mix—haha! When I was learning how to get into music producing I wasn’t aware of that and would end up with boomy or muddy mixes. Once I learned basic mix techniques and how to balance bass with kicks and instruments I levelled up immediately.
LVRA: I think the biggest mistake is to allow status quo or ‘industry’ knowledge to weigh down on how you see yourself as an artist. Production is such a probabilistic process that keeping your mind healthy really matters. I was never technically or classically trained and played mostly by ear from a young age, but it really doesn’t matter how you get to the end product.
Krust: Learn to slow down and take responsibility for your mental health. Surround yourself with people who inspire you to be a better artist and, most of all, a better human being. I wish I understood the power of goals and thought long-term—it took me a long time to recognise the power that they have.
Fred P: Become self-sufficient early and have a road map or business plan. Passion is great for your art but a business plan is better for the business of your art.